Sailing into space

6 05 2010

No, not a comment about today’s election. Although I think we all have a sense that we are about to enter uncharted territory once the votes have been counted. This is a much more uplifting story from Japan about their latest spacecraft, to be launched within the next few weeks.  What could be more elegant than a spacecraft with sails, driven by the sun’s particles, flying at 500,000 miles per hour across the solar system. And note, this idea was first dreamed up by Arthur C Clarke in a science fiction story. At this crucial time in human history we need more people with big dreams, and more people prepared to turn them into reality. I am reproducing the whole story from the Times below.

Leo Lewis in Tokyo

The Japanese space agency, flushed with the success of its origami space orbiter and zero-gravity sushi experiments, is poised for another spectacular leap into the cosmos: the launch of the first “space yacht”.

In three weeks’ time, in a trial run that is expected to captivate space researchers and science-fiction writers alike, a Mitsubishi H-IIA rocket will be sent into orbit from the island of Tanegashima and release its small satellite into the void.

Soon afterwards, having spent a few weeks first settling into a slow rotation, Ikaros will reveal its secret, unfurling the microscopically fine 20m sail that some believe to be the future of interplanetary travel.

Over the following six months — and if the theory of “solar yacht” propulsion holds up — Ikaros will begin its silent journey towards Venus, driven by only the tiny but relentless force of solar particles buffeting the sail.

If it works, it will be a triumph. Other space agencies have succeeded in unfurling experimental sails in space, but have yet to produce the expected propulsion. With every passing second Ikaros should gather a tiny amount of speed.

The craft derives its name from Icarus, the character from Greek mythology whose ill-planned flight took him too close to the Sun and ended in disaster.

Keen to avoid this association, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) is keen to point out that Ikaros stands for Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun. A larger version of the vessel could eventually travel at tens of thousands of miles per hour without any fuel.

The sail is designed to exploit the behaviour of photons, the particles that leave the Sun carrying energy in the form of heat, light and — critically for the space yacht — momentum.

It is the weak but unremitting beams of photons that give comets tails as their solar cores propel the dust behind them.

The Ikaros sail is coated with tiny mirrors that the photons bounce off, pushing the satellite through the resistance-free environment of space.

The Japanese experiment will test how quickly and effectively the photons can drive the satellite along, and how well the device can be controlled.

In theory, larger sails should deliver greater propulsion given enough time. Scientists in the United States believe that a sail a mile across could gradually achieve a pace to carry a craft across the solar system in five years.

If the sail were “shot” with the more targeted light of a laser, a solar yacht could theoretically achieve speeds of 500,000 mph.

In his final novel, The Last Theorem, the late Arthur C. Clarke imagined solar yacht races with astronauts competing to reach the Moon and back by photon power.

The sail, which cost about £10 million to create, is about the thickness of a Cellophane sandwich wrapper (32.5 micrometers) and covered with a second experimental material — so-called “thin film” solar panels, which also have potential applications on Earth.

The panels coat the sail so that Ikaros has a source of electrical power. It can then use it to ionise gas and fire it from small jets — a method of propulsion already used in conventional satellites. Japan is not the only country pursuing space sail technology. Russia is close to producing a version of the space yacht and much of the material science behind the sails has been developed in the United States.

Even if the prospect of sending sail-powered craft through the galaxy remains distant, the technology could make an immediate difference to conventional satellites. Without the need for fuel and cumbersome propulsion mechanisms, sails would allow satellites to be built smaller and lighter, requiring less energy to launch them into space.

The maiden Ikaros mission will last six months but the Japanese agency has further ambitions for the technology if it proves successful. It is hoping to send a device with larger sails towards Jupiter early in the next decade.

Flying high

Arthur C. Clarke, the English science-fiction writer, is best known for The Sentinel, which was made into the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke had a knack for producing visions of the future. He foresaw the creation of communication satellites, proposing they should orbit the equator.


Lost in space-the aliens are coming and they are as bad as us, apparently

25 01 2010

According to one prominent speaker at tomorrow’s conference at the Royal Society on alien life,

Governments should prepare for the worst if aliens visit Earth because beings from outer space are likely to be just like humans…Extra-terrestrials might not only ­resemble us but have our foibles, such as greed, violence and a tendency to exploit others’ resources.

One could not sum up the current misanthropism in society more concisely than this. Apparently, the worst thing that could happen is that aliens are like human beings. I wonder if the writer of these words has seen any of the films which imagine monsters from space, the huge carnivorous spiders from  Starship Troopers  or the truly nightmarish creatures from the Alien films.

It used to be the case that we feared these imagined horrors so much precisely because they were not human. That is why sci fi monsters so often appear as giant insects, the closest thing we have on earth to species which appear utterly alien to us in every way. Now the worst that some people can imagine is that they are like humans. We used to be afraid of monsters and now we are afraid of ourselves.

This attitude chimes with the anti-human approach of some environmentalists and population controllers who see humanity as not only a kind of pestilence on the face of the Earth, but also a danger to those beyond it. The new James Cameron film, Avatar, for example depicts humans as a threat to other, gentler, species in outer space.

The wish to explore space used to be at the heart of human endeavour. President John Kennedy put it at the heart of the United States’ aspirations in the 1960s. These days the urge to explore has been weakened and instead fears about the dangers of space exploration have come to the fore.  Now,it appears to be beyond us to repeat even what we managed 40 years ago by going to the Moon because of the difficulty and expense. In addition, we are warned of the dangers we bring to the Universe by simply existing.

There are many good, practical reasons to push ahead with the exploration of space, some of which I listed in this article on travel to Mars. But it is humanity’s endless curiosity and willingness to experiment and explore which has made us as unique in the universe as we currently appear to be. It is the triumph of human ingenuity and spirit over enormous difficulties which makes space travel so inspiring.

If it turns out that extraterrestrial life is like us then this would be a truly wonderful thing. It could mean creatures more technologically advanced from whom we could learn enormously. This is all in the field of speculation, although the massive increase in the number of inhabitable planets discovered in the recent past increases the likelihood that intelligent life exists elsewhere, at least on the statistical level.

Finding water on the Moon, an inspiration to us all

24 09 2009

moon1Readers of this blog will know that I have a deep interest in space travel. (Although I am not terribly good in aeroplanes so I cannot imagine I will be first in line for a moon trip). So it was exciting to read this morning that an Indian space probe appears to have discovered water on the Moon.

NASA has plans to build a permanent manned colony on the Moon within twenty years, although the Obama regime has been pouring cold water on these plans as the country’s economic crisis has deteriorated. If the plans were to go ahead then the presence of water would make a huge amount of difference to the viability of a permanent presence there. As today’s report indicated, availability of water would not only provide drinking water and enable crop irrigation but also permit the extraction of oxygen for breathing and hydrogen as an energy source.

A second reason for being excited about this discovery, if it is verified, is that it was made by an Indian lunar mission, its first in fact. As an emerging nation India has jumped ahead in the exploration stakes, not only of the US but also its main emerging rival, China. How inspiring it must be for the Indian people to know they are responsible for this discovery.

It is the inspirational aspect of space travel which is probably the most important aspect of it. As John F Kennedy understood, space travel has many potential economic benefits and acts as a huge boost to innovation, but its capacity to uplift and inspire stands above all of that. For an emerging country like India this success will encourage developments in other areas of life. It gives everybody a lift.

It may also be a harbinger for the 21st century in other ways. The inclusion of China and India in the G20 intergovernmental talks this weekend, and the raised status of this grouping, show how quickly emerging nations have become central to the governance of the world. The emerging rivalry between India and China, added to the international cooperation which the space programme demands, could give space exploration the edge which the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union did in the last century. That rivalry pushed technology to its limits and landed men on the Moon. Perhaps this time we will cast our net far deeper into space.

Mars Attack-why we need a manned mission to Mars

20 07 2009

mars1This blog has already said most of what it wanted to say about the moon landing long before the 40th anniversary. So let us discuss Mars instead.

Here are ten reasons why we should support a manned mission to Mars as soon as possible.

1. Because it is there.

2. Because setting ourselves this task would prove that we humans have not lost our fundamental urge to explore the world around us. The Times today argues that curing cancer is the modern equivalent of the moon landing. Keeping people alive longer is a laudable mission, but space travel speaks to a different set of human ambitions. It does not have to be one or the other.

3. Because it would require an enormous amount of courage on the part of those taking part which would inspire the whole world. As Buzz Aldrin, one of the moon walkers in 1969 said recently

I believe that a mission to Mars would need a commitment to a permanent settlement of people who have signed up to spend the whole of their career on the planet…we are talking about pilgrims, the sort of people who left (England)on the Mayflower.

4. Because it would require international cooperation on a vast scale.

5. Because in the course of solving the numerous scientific, human and technological problems that currently stand in the way of such a trip we would discover many new things about our world and about ourselves.

6. Because a colony on Mars would be a stepping stone for the exploration of the rest of the Universe.

7. Because we would be taking a calculated risk at a time when risk taking has a bad name. A Mars mission would challenge the safety first culture which dominates many cultures today.

8. Because if any natural disaster affected the earth we would need somewhere to escape to.

9. Because if we do not do it the Chinese will anyway. Not being involved would prove that we in Britain had abandoned any pretence to being of any significance in the modern world. As Buzz Aldrin says, ‘a vibrant nation explores or expires’.

10. Because a colony on Mars would change our perception of ourselves in the Universe.